The Judgment of Thamus

1. Postman evaluates the effects of technological progress.2. He argues that mankind as a whole ought to consider not the practical efficacy of new technology, but rather its subtler ideological effects on human thought and society.

3. Interesting quotations:

  • “‘What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory.'” (Postman 4) This paradoxical admonition makes a distinction between two popularly equivalent concepts: essentially that “memory” extends beyond “recollection.” In context, Thamus (whose argument Postman endorses) implies that having the resources to locate a certain piece of information is significantly inferior to retaining it “by … internal resources.” (Postman 4)
  • “… language is not merely a vehicle of thought but also the driver” (Postman 14) While apparently not original to Postman, this clever extension of a common metaphor points out the crucial role played by language in human thought: the directing of language by thought is reciprocated.

4. Confusing quotations:

  • “If a number can be given to the quality of a thought, then a number can be given to the qualities of mercy, love, hate, beauty, creativity, intelligence, even sanity itself.” (Postman 13) This seems to be a false generalization, even if the assumption is granted. Postman does not sufficiently explain the link between the “quality of a thought” and the other ideas, especially love and beauty. Furthermore, “the quality of a thought” is not clearly defined. If it is taken to mean the beauty or goodness of the idea, the quantifiability of this quality would indeed seem to imply the measurability of at least several of the listed qualities. However, in many cases, the grade follows a different rubric. For example, a common criterion is the efficacy of the student’s argument in favor of the thought. Granted, the availability of effective arguments for a given proposition surely depends on the verity of the proposition, and so the grade thus indirectly measures the truth of the thought. However, the truth of a thought is even less comparable to the other listed qualities than its less specific counterpart.
  • “If one is to err, it is better to err on the side of Thamusian skepticism [concerning the goodness of technology].(Postman 5) Does “better” here refer only to the outcomes of new technology? If so, this quotation reduces to the trivial statement that “Better outcomes are better,” and is thus rather pointless. Otherwise, what does he mean to say?

5. Related article: Digital Evolution (reason.com) This article also discusses the consequences of technology for human society, comparing the optimistic and pessimistic views. The author tends toward what he dubs “pragmatic optimism,” a slightly nuanced and tempered form of the former view.

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One thought on “The Judgment of Thamus

  1. I appreciated your related article– the Clive Thompson book looks like a good read, and the author of the article very clearly articulates (and seems to also own) Thompson’s balanced (two-eyed) perspective.

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